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CNN To Force ‘Crossfire’ Hosts To Find Common Ground

With Jon Stewart's 2004 'partisan hackery' rant still in the ether, cable-newser tries to stay true to its centrist image

CNN’s revived “Crossfire” program will still feature a host “from the right” and another “from the left,” but by the end of the show’s 30 minutes, the debaters will have to find some way to meet in the middle.

The final segment of a new relaunched version of what is arguably the Time Warner network’s best-known program will be called “Cease Fire,” said CNN Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist in remarks made to reporters Friday, and will offer “an opportunity for hosts to look for common ground at the end of the program.”

Clearly, the show may still be called “Crossfire” but CNN is eager to keep it from gunning down discourse about the important issues of the day.

When the cable-news outlet on Monday brings “Crossfire” out of a slumber that has lasted around eight years,  it will do so with the demise of its last version firmly in mind. In 2005, CNN took the long-running program off the air after a 2004 incident in which “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart appeared on the show as a guest and savaged it , saying it was “hurting America” and that its back-and-forth was nothing more than “partisan hackery.”

“You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably,” the comedian told the hosts at the time. Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson.

Getting the newest edition of the program right could be critical for CNN, which has been enjoying ratings momentum under the aegis of new president Jeff Zucker, thanks to big breaking-news stories including the Boston Marathon bombings. Indeed, the network moved the launch of “Crossfire” a week earlier to Monday from its original date, September 16, to take advantage of viewer interest in the current situation in Syria and what the United States’ response to it will be.

Launch of the show, which will feature former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, conservative commentator and former MSNBC host S.E. Cupp on the “right” and political adviser Stephanie Cutter and civil-rights activist Van Jones on the “left,” could be aimed at keeping CNN more in the ratings fray in early evening, a crucial daypart that helps build audience for prime-time programming. MSNBC recently moved longtime host Ed Schultz back to a 5 p.m. time slot and Chris Matthews to 7 p.m. to build support for its evening slate.

Gingrich and Cutter will host the first edition of the new “Crossfire” on Monday, said Feist, while Cupp and Jones will host Tuesday.  The network may mix and match the on-air anchors, he said, depending upon their views on a particular topic. In recent rehearsals, he noted, not everyone argued along typical party lines on issues like Syria.

Yet those affiliations are firmly in mind.  When “Crossfire” returns, it will do so with several format changes designed to make the right-versus-left debate it has long purported to present more substantial, said Feist.

The new show will be “very different” from the last version of “Crossfire,” which aired on CNN starting in 1982. Gone is the live studio audience, Feist said, the presence of which tended to “change the level and quality of the debate a great deal. Both the hosts and the guests, I think, felt a natural inclination to play to the audience.” And in this version, he said, the hosts will focus on one topic for the length of the program, rather than jumping across multiple subjects as had been the norm.

The hosts also indicated they are committed to presenting something more substantial on “Crossfire” than hot air.

Gingrich pointed to “Crossfire’s” early days when host Bob Novak and others offered more tempered discussion of newsy topics. “Everyone who watched felt they were watching a real, genuine dialogue between passionate people who cared a lot,” he said. “That’s the standard we’re going to try and set and that’s the standard we’re going to ask you to monitor us against.” If the hosts can’t rise to the occasion, said Gingrich, “we will have failed the audience and we will have failed CNN and ourselves.”

Jones suggested modern TV-news viewers were interested in true debate, not theatrics. “They are tired of cheap debate, but they are hungry for deep debate,” he said.

Of course, this is TV. “Crossfire” will have its share of back-and-forth, said Cutter. “None of us are going to shy away from a good debate,” she said. “The difference is we will get beyond the talking points. We will get beyond the one-liners.”

The “Crossfire” relaunch tackles the question of how CNN intends to parry against Fox News and MSNBC, both of which have seen ratings surge over the years by relying on more partisan talk programs in primetime. CNN has striven to remain centrist across most of its programming, even as that stance seemed to render it a more vanilla provider of the news of the moment. By letting liberal and conservative hosts have at it so long as they sound a harmonious note at the end of the argument, the network clearly hopes to have its cake and eat it, too.

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